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Core social cognition

FALL 2014 Public Lecture

Dr. Elizabeth Spelke

Mature human cognition is complex and variable, both across contemporary cultures and over human history, but human cognitive development proceeds in a more predictable pattern, especially in infants and young children. Studies of infants' cognitive abilities in non-social domains (including object cognition, numerical cognition and spatial cognition) shed light on the starting points for human cognitive development. Together with studies of these cognitive abilities in other animals, at other ages, and with other methods from the cognitive and brain sciences, this research suggests deep properties of physical and mathematical reasoning in older children and adults. Here I ask whether studies of infants can bring similar insights into human social cognition. Do the complex social inferences and intuitions of adults develop from, and build on, simpler systems that are functional in infants? If so, what are the properties of these systems, and what roles do they play in the richer social reasoning that emerges later in development? Recent studies of human infants, using simple behavioral methods, suggest that the answers to these questions may lie within reach. I describe some new findings and call for a multi-species, multi-leveled search for the core mechanisms by which humans navigate the social world.

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